“It’s like déjà vu,” said the woman loudly to her friend, so I couldn’t help overhearing. “I feel like I walked past that same spot yesterday but I can’t quite place it.”
We were standing in a row, three Americans abroad, gazing at a 17th-century painting of a Dutch canal in Amsterdam’s recently reopened powerhouse Rijksmuseum, and I diplomatically decided not to intrude. But peering more closely at the canvas, things became clear. The scene of brick row houses and humpbacked bridges? The immense lowlands sky that looked so swollen it seemed ready to split the canvas and spill out its golden light? Maybe the woman was staying in some anodyne suburban hotel and had been rushed through Amsterdam’s historic quarter, so it left only a blurry impression. Or maybe she had just been too jet-lagged to notice. But walk out the Rijksmuseum door, turn left, stroll four blocks and one bridge over, and you stumble straight into an echo of the cityscape we were all studying on the canvas, down to the tilting gabled roofs and the glowing dome of a sky. Chances are the woman really had walked through some semblance of the painting the day before.
That sense of mirror image underscored an epiphany that I hoped my fellow traveler, after a good night’s sleep, would wake up to, and one that would keep resurfacing throughout my own most recent spring week in the Netherlands. Europe offers plenty of countries crammed with artistic masterworks. But few, in the end, feature what Holland does: such an inextricable link binding art and subject, painter and muse, that you can savor the Dutch master canvasses in the morning and then stroll right into their sublime landscape by the afternoon.
The miracle is partly due to the fact that many old Dutch towns escaped both world war bombing and the 1960s urban development frenzy that left behind an ugly scrim of steel and concrete elsewhere. And it’s partly because the local artists, unlike so many of their continental counterparts, weren’t interested in painting the baroque world of inbred, cross-eyed monarchs and overwrought mythological melodramas.
Working for a pragmatic market of middle-class Dutch burghers, who wanted to see reflections of their own secular reality, Rembrandt and Vermeer focused their radical gazes, instead, on the everyday beauty of this blooming world: the light stippling a brick house front; a strand of pearls and a ripe peach; the fields and canals that still define our sense of Holland and that we can experience ourselves.
Three reopened museums
The earthbound sensibility of the Golden Age artists is what makes their work such pioneering classics and it helps explain why Amsterdam, at a time when most cities are retrenching, invested multimillions of dollars renovating its trifecta of world-class art galleries: the contemporary Stedelijk, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Rijksmuseum. All three museums have reopened this year, along with a Museum Square that has been re-invented as a new public performance hub. But it is the big reveal of the refurbished 19th-century Rijksmuseum this spring, after a 10-year makeover, that justifies a trip to Amsterdam.
The museum’s new anchor is a glass atrium that seems designed to soak up all of the ethereal Dutch light. Jutting off that luminous courtyard is an airy cafe and an epic gift shop stocked with herring-shaped soap on a rope, tulip vases and an edible chocolate miniature of the museum itself, if you want to take a bite out of the gallery. But the renovation’s biggest gift are the freshly edited and laid out galleries that give the masterworks by Holland’s A list — Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael — room to breathe and play off one another.
“No more double rows of paintings in the main galleries,” curator Pieter Roelofs told me when he led me on a tour.
“For the first time,” Roelofs said, “we have four Vermeers in a row.” That meant my eye could run seamlessly from the golden glow of “The Milkmaid,” a girl who would probably bleed fresh cream, to the “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” her vibrant pop of a lapis lazuli dress revealed after a recent cleaning, turning the canvas into a dazzling duet of color and radiant light.
Just down the long Gallery of Honor the huddled burghers of Rembrant’s “The Night Watch” looked as vigilant as ever, guarding over the rows of Dutch landscapes: all those expansive lowland pastures and red brick towns.
If you’re ready to dive into those classic still lifes, you don’t need to tackle the entire country. Start with Amsterdam itself, where the leap into Rembrandt’s wholly tangible Golden Age is easy enough. The artist’s 17th-century city is so intact it recently won official recognition; Amsterdam’s western arc of canals, curling around more historic landmarks than any other European city center, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, and the heritage is visceral.
My own weekend promenade after my morning at the Rijksmuseum — a favorite marathon I’ve perfected during biannual trips to Amsterdam — is as good a guide as any. Start with a walk-up and down the Nine Streets, running between the concentric loop of grand canals, where the burghers still hawk their haul of exotica in crammed shops. At bulging boutiques like De Weldaad, you can actually pick through the vintage treasures (end-irons, Delft tiles, plaster busts) culled from historic canal houses. Then make a pit-stop at ’t Smalle cafe, where you can knock back glasses of Dutch jenever (gin), bundled up in a Dutch still life. Or walk over a few bridges and down a few more canals to Café Walem, where you can settle at a canal-side table, if the sun breaks through, and lunch on the world’s best smoked salmon sandwich while surveying the austere gabled houses crowned (look up!) by an exuberant universe of stone sea-gods blowing conch shells and goddesses draped in thick ropes of garlands.
If you don’t want to leave the canals, you don’t have to. Hotels like the Ambassade, composed of 10 joined 17th- and 18th-century canal houses, let you wake up to the pearly glint of water, the swoop of sea gulls wheeling down from the North Sea and the view of Amsterdammers sailing past the old-school way, in wooden boats.
If that’s not enough of an artful, time-warped weekend, you can head through Rembrandt’s own front door. Rembrandt’s House, the fully restored 17th-century manor where the painter lived and worked at the pinnacle of his career, is now an elegantly reconstructed museum in the city’s old Jewish Quarter, and his personal cabinet of curiosities has been zealously restored. The room is still crowded with the collections of oddities and props that inspired Rembrandt, so it’s like peeking into his own creatively whirring brain; the coral and seashells, stuffed alligators and armadillos, tribal headdresses and classical busts are all sitting patiently, waiting to be sketched again.
Rembrandt and most of the other Dutch masters weren’t hometown boys, and if you want a more sustained sense of their world, and a full-scale immersion in the Dutch canvas, head south. In a pocket-size country, that’s easy to do. Rembrandt’s birthplace of Leiden was an easy 40-minute drive in my rental car. The Hague, home to the Mauritshuis museum, sat just south from there. Undergoing its own renovation, the Mauritshuis is closed until the fall of 2014, but 100 of its cherry-picked paintings are on display in a neighboring gallery and the curated top masterworks are masterly enough.
Seeing Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” that pearl a teardrop of distilled light, justified the side-trip alone. So did the tulip fields — running in glossy, wavering sheets of primary colors, only stopping when they crashed up against the horizon — that followed me to the Hague, and then to Delft.
Even if it isn’t spring, the drive is worthwhile. That’s because the other painting at the Mauritshuis is Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” and that town still comes closest to approximating the artist’s golden dream of Holland, a place where canvas and landscape simply merge. In fact, from certain perspectives Delft still looks exactly like the provincial village that Vermeer compulsively painted and that he refused to leave.
Born in the center of town in 1632, the painter died there 43 years later, penniless, leaving behind 11 children and a wife so poor she had to barter two of his paintings for bread. Why did he stay put in his backwater hometown, working his way into poverty? Maybe he was enthralled by its quiet domesticity, a hush that reads like a lullaby, and that became the truest subject of his paintings. Or maybe the town’s seamless beauty made it an inescapable muse. You can judge for yourself because the beauty is still on exuberant show.
The central Markt Square is a cobbled plaza framed by a whimsical City Hall. Every shop window glints with the blue-and-white ceramics produced by the town’s Delftware factory, and the Oude Delft canal is crowned by a hoop of leafy trees. If you’re hungry, dig into a classic Dutch pancake or broodje (a k a sandwich) on the floating terrace of the Stads-Koffyhuis. If you’re tired, book a room at the venerable Museumhotels Delft just down the canal, a group of three listed landmark buildings that Vermeer would have known well.
And though the truer spirit of Vermeer, a ghostly blur known as the Sphinx of Delft, is a bit harder to find (even his remains disappeared in a mass burial plot though his original grave is marked in the Old Church) there are tantalizing glimpses of the artist everywhere. When I stopped by the Art & Antiques van Geenen (Antiek Van Geenen) shop, the owner claims I have stumbled into Vermeer ground zero. This, he tells me, is the house where the painter was born.
Who’s to say? Records certify that Vermeer was born on Voldersgracht 25, and the shop is Voldersgracht 26. But the antique dealer reveals a winding flight of stairs, walled off at the top, that he suggests originally connected the two buildings. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter. Because looking outside the window, at the canal crowned by floating water lilies, and a brick wall drenched by golden light, you know Vermeer would have felt perfectly at home here, right in this spot, on this sun-splashed spring day.
Raphael Kadushin lives in Madison, Wis., and writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other magazines.